Texas is ready to start handing out $2 billion for new water projects, four months ahead of schedule and more than a year after drought-conscious voters overwhelmingly approved using excess oil and gas tax revenue for water development.
Well, almost ready. Anyone eligible for the money — including cities, towns, and nonprofit public utilities — can now apply for it, state officials said Thursday. It will probably be another year before the money actually flows into those coffers.
"Today is a historic day for the citizens of Texas and for the future of our state's water supplies," said Carlos Rubinstein, chairman of the Texas Water Development Board, the agency that acts as Texas' water infrastructure bank and is handling the $2 billion.
His announcement was a victory for the agency and lawmakers who had tried for years without success to fund the behemoth $53 billion State Water Plan, a list of water supply projects needed across the state. The near-unprecedented drought that still persists in much of the southwest presented an opportunity to tap the state's Rainy Day Fund with voter approval.
The water board already lends money for water projects across Texas, but this cash infusion will help make deals even sweeter through interest subsidies or options to defer loan payments. About $150 million could be used in the coming year, Rubinstein said, to support $800 million in loans. The agency expects to boost those numbers in each of the next 10 years.
Those wanting a piece of the first round will have to apply by Feb. 3, 2015, but can submit "abridged" applications for expediency's sake. In spring, the board will rank applications using criteria developed over the past year, including how many people will be served by proposed water projects. Later, everyone making the cut will submit full applications, and the money may be ready to go next fall.
Rubinstein has earned praise for his work at the agency, which came under unprecedented scrutiny since its leadership was overhauled during the 2013 legislative session. Now, he'll be watched closely as the board selects which projects to fund first. Some of the money will be reserved for rural-area projects and conservation, which has been a challenge to define.
And money is only one piece of the solution for Texas' grave water challenges. The State Water Plan the board promises to fund contains contradictions and projects that appear unlikely, or could take decades longer than anticipated. And communities seeking new water supplies face everything from a messy groundwater regulation scheme to a water rights system that many say is outdated.
"This is a tremendous opportunity, but it also allows us to learn," Rubinstein said. "We'll also be looking at, why can't your project be funding today? What regulatory hurdle is keeping you from moving it forward?"